My favorite documentaries in recent years have been the experiments in style that push the medium to newfound extremes, testing the boundaries of what makes something a “documentary” in the first place. The way titles like Rat Film, The Nightmare, Casting JonBenet and, most recently, Dick Johnson is Dead blur the boundaries between fact & fiction, observation & essay, and all other criteria that separate the documentary from traditional narrative filmmaking has been continually exciting to watch, and it feels like the artform is reaching new creative highs with each new experiment. The Painter and the Thief is of a much rarer breed among recent critically lauded docs, then. It calls back to a type of no-frills documentary filmmaking that doesn’t push its style or formalism to any flashy extremes, because it can easily rely on the stranger-than-fiction details of the story it tells. I’m thinking of titles like Crazy Love, Tabloid, and Three Identical Strangers, except in this case the story is much gentler & more intimate. It aims more for empathy & rehabilitation than it does “Get a load of this crazy shit!” sensationalism, which is more of its distinguishing deviation than any of its experiments in form.
The Painter and the Thief chronicles fine art painter Barbora Kysilkova’s bizarre friendship with a man who was arrested stealing two of her most expensive works. Kysilkova’s both genuinely fascinated by the drug addiction & impulsive behavior that drew this total stranger to stealing her paintings and inserts herself into his life in hopes that the lost (likely sold) works can eventually be recovered. Both of the film’s subjects are skeptical of each other’s intentions. The repentant Karl Bertil-Nordland worries that the artist he wronged is going to exploit or mock him in some way, while Kysilkova can’t help but push him for more details about the lost paintings he claims he can’t remember the fates of. Their initial barriers break down when Bertil-Nordland becomes the subject of a new Kysilkova painting, though, totally flabbergasted that someone would take the time & care to render his face on canvas. The film isn’t in any rush to tease out the stranger details of their relationship from there. Instead, it leisurely draws parallels between the unlikely friends’ lives & temperaments until the story of the robbery that brought them together in the first place comes full circle in its own time.
If there’s anything flashy about the way The Painter and the Thief tells this story, it’s in how it alternates between its two subjects’ perspectives. Both The Painter and The Thief take turns explaining their side of the friendship divide in rigidly partitioned segments, offering as much empathy to both subjects as possible by leveling the platform they share here. That’s not a choice that necessarily reinvents the documentary as an artistic medium, though, more than it is a choice that breaks down the (mostly classist) assumptions the audience might make about what separates its two subjects. Bertil-Nordland’s “Snitches are a dying breed” tattoo & “Fat people are hard to kidnap” novelty t-shirt project a kind of defensive, dirtbag energy meant to keep people like Kysilkova at a distance. The way she reaches past that boundary in her work to truly see him is the real phenomenon explored here, as it highlights how much of a rare occurrence that exchange is in his life. This is a movie interested in interrogating the social, class-based boundaries between its subjects more so than it is in interrogating the boundaries of its medium. It can feel like a traditionalist approach to the material at hand, but it’s also a surprisingly moving one.